Some thoughts on the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy

Some thoughts on the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy

The fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy arrives at a time when we are in dire need of some reminders: of the urgency of confronting climate change, and the power of collective action to bring the changes we need.

In this presidential campaign, we’ve seen a lot of things we did not expect. But one thing we haven’t seen: a real discussion of the urgent need to address climate change (despite ever-mounting evidence). Across three debates, there was not one question about one of the existential challenges of our age. In the upside-down world that Donald Trump and the Republican Party have brought us, climate change denial is somehow barely even remarkable – but we must not forget how deadly inaction would be.

When I think back to the days and weeks after the hurricane, what I remember most is the truly extraordinary “organized compassion,” the tireless work of thousands of volunteers – in our community at the Park Slope Armory and John Jay HS shelters, through the Red Hook Initiative, in the Rockaways, Coney Island, Staten Island, and far beyond.

At the Armory, the first task on every shift was always bathroom duty (there were only two shared bathrooms, for 500 frail elderly evacuees). And on every shift, plenty of hands went up. After that, we got to food (prepared by Masbia), health care, showers, counseling, activities, and advocacy to get back home.

In a time of dark despair, we saw powerful flashes of beauty in the ways neighbors cared for each other.  After the waters ebbed, our city was flooded with compassion – what evacuee and temporary Park Slope Armory resident Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler called “courtesy, gentleness, and goodness beyond description.”  We saw this compassion through neighbors taking each other in, volunteers flocking to the hardest-hit neighborhoods, and people donating money and resources to those in need.

Four years ago, we were also just about to have a national election. One of my favorite stories of post-Sandy organized compassion – motivated by and in service of our democracy – was the heroic work of Park Slope Armory volunteer Livia Beasley. On the Sunday night before the election, she realized the elderly evacuees at the Armory would not be able to get back to the Rockaways and Coney Island to vote. So she swung into action:

“On Sunday, I printed out a slew of these absentee ballot applications, wrangled some volunteers, some friends and combed through the Park Slope Armory and got people to apply for an absentee ballot,” Beasley explained.

On Monday, through 3 p.m., she collected the ballot applications with 10 other volunteers. Once they got about 85 applications from the shelter residents, she went to the Queens Board of Elections office, while other volunteers went to the one in Brooklyn, to hand in the applications and get the actual absentee ballots.

Acting as designees, Beasley and the volunteers were able to get the ballots for the evacuees. They got back at Armory by 6 p.m. and worked until 9 p.m. on Monday.

Tuesday morning, she then collected the votes from 85 people total and brought them back to the Brooklyn and Queens BOE in time to submit the ballots.

“Once I got to the BOE and I saw the same employees, I gave them all hugs,” Beasley said. “I was just so happy that that we got this done.”

We’re in urgent need of that spirit of organized compassion, and that commitment to democracy, if we’re going to confront the existential challenges we face today.

As Rebecca Solnit teaches in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, there is extraordinary power of people coming together in the wake of tragedy to act collectively, take care of each other, and build powerful communities of relief that offer “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

“The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure,” Solnit teaches us, “is the great contemporary task of being human.”

That purpose was present in the Council chambers at City Hall this week, when Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II joined our Council Meeting, and spoke about the importance of water – to the life of the Standing Rock Sioux, and to all of us (thanks to Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and to our neighbor Eduardo Castell for bringing his inspiration to us). Bill McKibben’s Op-Ed this morning, “Why Dakota is the New Keystone,” helps bring home how important their movement is.

Closer to home, we are trying to bring that spirit to the planning work in Gowanus, the next phase of which kicked off this week. We’ve spent the time since Sandy – when the Gowanus flooded its banks – bringing people together through Bridging Gowanus to develop a community planning framework for a safe, vibrant, inclusive, and sustainable Gowanus. As we transition into the next phase of the work, the Gowanus Neighborhood Planning Study led by the New York City Department of City Planning, we are grounding our planning in issues of sustainability and resiliency. Our first substantive meeting, set for December 8th, will focus on those issues. Please sign up to stay involved.

I’ll admit it: some days I worry about our ability as a species to confront the existential challenges we face – here in New York City, in the United States, and as a global community.

But those flashes of hope – those “glimpse[s] of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become” – are what we have to build on (check out Michael Kimmelman’s article on the Habitat 3 conference for a few more).

You can call it “organized compassion.” Or “democratic socialism.” Or “stronger together.” You can show it by repairing homes with Habitat, standing with the Standing Rock Sioux solidarity protests, or making calls/knocking doors to make sure we elect a president who sees the urgent need to address climate change.

But in any case, don’t let the cynicism around this election season blot it out.

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